Company that wants to be an “online Harvard” finds path to accreditation

Minerva Project, a startup aspiring to build an online Ivy League-caliber university from scratch, just checked a major item off its to-do list. On Wednesday, the company plans to announce a partnership with the Claremont, Calif.-based Keck Graduate Institute (KGI) that will enable it to operate as an accredited educational institution.
For a company that wants to be seen as an alternative to traditional brick-and-mortar schools – not just a complement like MOOC providers Coursera and Udacity – that’s a big deal. Without it, graduates would have difficulty getting into law schools and medical schools or impressing potential employers.
Ben Nelson, the founder and CEO of the San Francisco-based startup, said other options included buying an accredited institution or launching without accreditation and then applying for it later on (which means early classes would graduate without the all-important seal of approval).
But he said the partnership with KGI, which is still pending approval from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, made the most sense given the organizations’ similar missions and philosophies. KGI, which is part of The Claremont University Consortium that includes schools like Claremont-McKenna and Harvey Mudd, pioneered a new kind of educational model when it launched in 1997 as a program for helping post graduates in the sciences integrate the science and business curriculum needed for their industries.
With KGI, Minerva will launch a school of arts & sciences and a business school, with both deans reporting to the president of KGI and some faculty members holding joint appointments. Through the partnership, Minerva gets accreditation and KGI gets a front row seat to a technology-powered future of education, as well as access to the technology itself. While some accreditation-driven partnerships involve a cash payment, Nelson said there’s no direct financial benefit for KGI in this deal.
“This is what I consider to be a much more aboveboard pathway to accreditation as opposed to other methods that aren’t as clean,” he said.
The plan is for Minerva to become independent over time. After the first few classes of students graduate, Nelson said Minerva will work with a regional accreditor and spin off, although it will continue to collaborate with KGI.
Minerva, which made a splash last year with the announcement of a massive $25 million seed round, plans to accept its first class in the fall of 2015. While its goal is to provide an online education that rivals any from a tier-one research university, Minerva is also trying to rethink financial aid so that students can graduate without the same kind of crushing debt load.
In addition to raising a mega seed round, Nelson, who is the former CEO of Snapfish, has recruited several high-profile supporters, including former Harvard president and Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, who is an advisor, and former U.S. Senator and Governor Bob Kerrey (D-NB), who leads Minerva’s Institute for Research and Scholarship.